In a blog entitled A Polemic (1/20/17), I wrote about an artist’s duty to comment upon events of the time. In a similar vein, the editors of Harper’s devoted their February edition to “A Resister’s Guide”: 11 writers stop to consider the impact of Donald Trump’s 2017 presidential election. One of those essays struck me with a critical force: “Letter to Silicon Valley” by Kate Crawford. Like me, she worries about invasive data collection and its threat to personal privacy. Every electronic device we touch leaves a tattletale track of our day, she reminds us. Algorithms make it possible to map our networks of activity. Searches like these enable governments to identify “influencers” and “joiners,” a tool that could be used to nip political dissent in the bud. (Ibid pg. 37.)
Most of us know Apple refused to share its customer’s data when our government came calling, (Click). Yahoo, however, threw open its portals like windows to welcome a spring day. (Click). Apparently, the company failed to consider that data collection is now so massive and searches are so refined that Muslims, for example, can be identified “82 percent of the time, using only their Facebook likes.” (Ibid 37.) Those of us, old enough to remember, recall that Hitler used far less sophisticated technology to identify Jews. Thomas Watson, IBM’s first president, received a medal from the Fuhrer for his assistance on the project. Later, when he became a subcontractor for the US government, he applied a
similar technology to identify Japanese Americans who were then shipped to internment camps. (Ibid pg. 37.)
Steps can be taken to erase some electronic footprints, as Crawford points out. But the scale of collection is so immense, individuals are almost powerless to guard all their information. Because the tech world exerts more influence over the conduct of democracy today than the media ever did, I think of them as the Sixth Estate. And just as the Fourth Estate has done, they must recognize that with power comes responsibility. The industry must develop a standard of ethics as well as standards of commerce. Questions of personal freedoms shouldn’t be left to the conscience of individual engineers. True, as Crawford points out, a few have pledged to resist developing tools that would aid in the mass deportation of ethnic groups. But that’s a far cry from standards that would protect all of us from an overreaching government.
Not to put too fine a point on it, we face a peril as potentially devastating as the atom bomb. Democracy as we know it could be obliterated with a few strands of code. The Sixth Estate has an obligation to do more than profit from our private information. They have a duty to us — we, the people. As Crawford warns these creators of our burgeoning technology, “History also keeps a file.” (Ibid pg. 38.)